King’s College London is an internationally renowned university delivering exceptional education and world-leading research. We are dedicated to driving positive and sustainable change in society and realising our vision of making the world a better place. King’s College London is ranked 11th in the world and 2nd in the UK in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings that measure universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our ambitions are reflected in King’s Vision 2029.

Bush House, Strand Campus
King’s Business School, Bush House, Strand Campus

This commitment extends to and is embodied by King’s Business School. Established formally as a faculty of King’s in 2017, we have been on a rapid, upwards trajectory since, and now serve 3500 students representing 114 different nationalities, as well as over 150 academic staff.

In the last year King’s Business School has achieved double accreditation from AACSB and EQUIS, achieved a top decile (9/108) result in REF 2021 and been ranked 5th/123 in the Complete University Guide 2023. We are ready to build on this success and have secured approximately £2.8m of university funding to launch the Centre for Sustainable Business, which will be integral to these plans.

Centre for Sustainable Business

Businesses around the world have made important contributions to economic growth, unprecedented technological innovation and financed welfare provision. At the same time, business faces growing criticisms for its slow response, and even adverse contributions, to some of the grand challenges of today - growing inequality within and between countries, the unfolding climate crisis, and a collapse of trust in business and political institutions. Recognising the urgency and scale of the transformation required, the Centre for Sustainable Business will accelerate further research, education and partnerships with business and civil society, contributing strongly to the goal of a just and inclusive transition to a sustainable economy.

In this context there are enhanced expectations of business and its leaders to create ethical, inclusive and sustainable organisations. Whilst the challenge is clear the roadmap to get there remains uncertain with complex trade-offs and the risk of unintended consequences (Hahn et al 2010). Our ambition is to draw on the interdisciplinary strengths of the whole King’s College community to enable businesses to make a positive contribution to the societies they serve, as well as to highlight irresponsible business practices that hinder positive change. King’s Business School has the opportunity not only to differentiate itself as a global thought leader in this area but also to develop new leadership capabilities that can drive our mission to educate future leaders in business, politics and civil society and to upskill corporate executives, civil servants and company boards. We are looking for a visionary, world-renowned scholar to drive forward our plans for the Centre.

How will we address these opportunities and challenges?

Building on their track record of leading major research activities, the incoming Director (Research) will have a unique opportunity to shape the agenda for the Centre. With strong endorsement from the University Principal and University Council we have developed a number of interconnected workstreams that underpin our initial plans for the Centre.

These four related workstream are:

  1. Sustainable consumption and demand

  2. Configuration of business systems

  3. Financial flows and ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance information)

  4. Purposeful leadership

While consumers purport to want ethical and sustainable products and services, their purchasing behaviour rarely reflects this (Auger et al 2010). For example, while there was widespread outrage over the working conditions that led to Rana Plaza fire in Bangladesh in 2013, demand for the brands which produced clothing there continued, even without improvements in working conditions. Demand never went down, and in some cases went up. We need to look beyond surveys which examine consumers values, beliefs and intentions toward ethical and sustainable issues, and rather examine the models of consumption which shape how consumers consume more than their values, beliefs or intentions do.

This raises the need for a second workstream, exploring the ways businesses are configured in order to deliver these new models of consumption. It is evident that business models are being disrupted by the shift to Net Zero, a shifting regulatory and changing consumer sentiment. This will involve extending our existing work on supply chains and governance (eg. Reinecke 2015) to address questions such as: how can companies transition to novel business models, such as circular economy, shared purpose or regenerative business models? What are new ways of future-oriented strategic thinking, which could overcome the short-termism and intertemporal dilemmas that complicate effective responses to grand challenges? How do 2050 climate goals challenge performance and accountability measures?

The third relates to sustainable finance and climate risk. A key problem in sizing climate risks is the difficulty in measuring the size of these risks using data available today. The Centre will provide new approaches to extracting and analysing information about different types of climate risks. For example, looking at news coverage of the topic and identifying the influence of this news on asset prices and behaviour and linking this information to broader financial data to reveal investors’ pricing of risks. This is important because it is an indicator of the resilience of the company. Another dimension of this theme is ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) data. While ESG reporting should be improving transparency and helping investors make better decisions, there are major concerns about ESG reporting and we do not know the extent to which it might be used for ‘greenwashing’ or the extent to which it is really influencing investor behaviour. Do investors have the capabilities to evaluate data which may be presented in ways that are inconsistent, and possibly deliberately obscure? We will also look at who is being included in this investment advice, building on existing King’s Business School work on the ways in which women are excluded from the financial system (Baeckstrom 2022).

Finally, none of this change can happen without leadership for sustainability. Organisations are grappling with the meaning, tools and measurement of purpose-driven leadership. This is not just an issue for large corporates. The Centre will tap into the capacity for change among small and medium-sized enterprises, and therefore have a dedicated workstream exploring this. The Centre plans two substantive agendas: one focused on building a practitioner network to engage in the ways in which purposeful leadership can help companies to serve a broad range of stakeholders and one focused on the leaders of small and medium-sized enterprises.

To build the critical capacity and differentiated profile to allow King’s Business School to create real impact and – in line with King’s vision – making the world a better place, and given the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to make progress against the Sustainable Development Goals, it is vital that our research drives real change and develops graduates that are resilient, culturally competent and not fazed by criticism that business is solely engaged in ‘greenwashing’ and ‘virtue signalling’. We will create cohorts of thoughtful business leaders both in early career groups (through our UG programmes and MSc in ESG) and at more senior levels (through our new Executive MBA programme. We will build on our impact agenda through programmes of engaged scholarship, working closely with business partners to develop ways to transition to a low-carbon economy that works for everyone.

The Centre will have a catalytic role in developing three capabilities. First, it will draw on and expand our connections with other parts of the university. This extends beyond the faculties to include the vital work of the King’s sustainability team. Second, we see this as an excellent opportunity to accelerate the development of our own early to mid-tenure colleagues, providing them with the opportunity to build their grant application and management skills and to develop their ability to generate real impact from their work. Third, the Centre will create roles for postdocs, and internships for students, with a view to accelerating career development in a growing field with much unmet demand from employers.

Scope of the Centre

In order to achieve these aims, the Centre’s scope will encompass research excellence, education, and impact with an emphasis on building mechanisms for knowledge exchange and connectivity:

  • Research excellence
    Building capacity in existing research areas leading to distinctive new research opportunities and outcomes with strong impact.

  • Research impact
    Work with existing and new partners in business, the public sector and civil society to influence positive change at local, national and international levels.

  • Knowledge exchange
    Inspire and ignite change at the level of individuals, organisations and systems through a series of seminars, events, podcasts.

  • Education
    Continue to develop innovative educational material based on our research, with a renewed focus on executive education as a driver of positive impact, as well as integration in to new and existing UG and PG programmes.

While the Centre will be housed in King’s Business School and its main aim is to catalyse and accelerate the development of our work in these four arenas, it will also be a focus for connectivity across the university. We envisage the Centre as a ‘hub’ in a ‘hub and spoke’ system that can extend across the university, strengthen our links to business, academia and society and enable large-scale grant capture.

Sustainability research at King’s Business School